Hedging Our Bets on Racism

If you point your finger at someone and call them a racist, all discussion will cease, even if that person is as blatantly racist as the men and women running the country right now.

There’s a reason for this, though. One that is both upsetting and understandable.

Racism became associated with Nazism during WW2, and Americans, ever concerned with looking like the better society, made sure to try and distance themselves from that. So all of the racist things in our own society were less awful than a literal Holocaust and therefore we, the “good” people, were never to be seen as racist.

This grows and mutates and changes. Progress is made, but each sliver of progress is met by both an intense backlash and also a desire to prove we’re good enough (ie “not racist”) and can’t we just stop talking about it yet?

Ultimately, there is never going to be a moment when we press a button and the country fully reckons with its racist history. Germany has done a remarkable job of this, but they had to lose a world war to be forced into penitence (maybe we could stand to have that happen, but a lot of us would have to die for us to admit defeat).

On the other hand, we can’t give up and use mealy-mouthed terms like “racially-charged” when we’re talking about a racist act. We should never be afraid of calling an act racist, and it’s distressing we have to flay ourselves open to be heard on this. When it comes to individuals, though, although I believe a lot more people are racist than would admit it, it’s most effective, in my view, to frame discussions around racist systems and socialization. That’s not to say we can’t call the president racist, because of course. But interpersonally, if we are choosing to educate (and we don’t have to choose this!), especially as a teacher myself, I feel I have the most success painting the institutions as racist and giving individuals the choice to perpetuate or resist their influence. When you help them feel they have a choice, they have a better chance to make better decisions.

That doesn’t mean they’re not racist, because, on a deeper level, most folks fear the other and are uncomfortable with groups demonized by society. But I don’t think it’s worthwhile to try to change those feelings you can’t really see. We can, however, hope to change people’s choices. So that’s just my opinion on effective ways to do so.

Justice: Or, So What Do We Do?

In the work I’m trying to do, part of the point is that language professionals who insist that race and language are separate issues (or that the former isn’t an issue at all) are wrong and that the racial hierarchy of the United States (and the world) has a profound impact on all marginalized and racialized people.

Yet as I work to find my own niche in documenting this – having chosen a form of performative defensiveness as a subject, an offshoot of White Fragility and the like I’m referring to as the “altruistic shield” – I’ve been confronted with the fact that just point out another avenue to pain for people of color isn’t really unique. My idea might be, if I succeed at arguing my point(s) well, but let’s say I do establish the altruistic shield as something credible. Then what?

In a way, it’s a shame, because a lot of what gets published is a series of studies documenting black (and brown) pain, and these studies need to be published because some folks, even within education, still don’t believe us, the way white folks in the 60s needed to see the brutality on TV before it was real, or had to see 45 assume office before they realized little progress had been made. So that subgenre of scholarship on racism that chronicles and documents bigotry is still, sadly, needed, because they won’t believe us if we don’t remind them. But what comes after? How do we actually address these issues?

I don’t actually know. And I know the way we are trying to solve it – “diversity and inclusion!” – isn’t really increasing racial literacy.

I could write what I want to and then tell people to read more scholarship, but with the paywalls and other such barriers, that’s not a very useful thing to advise, setting aside the fact that even open access journals are full of excessive jargon.

Yet I’m reluctant to offer a checklist. “Do these three things and you won’t be bad at race.” That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of it works.

As Paris and others have noted, the “inward gaze” is really the way to address all of this, in my view. People in dominant groups need to recognize more than mere privilege – which has been watered down into uselessness – but their role in hegemony and dominance. And then they – we, really, as I’m a male of high socio-economic status – have to consider what they can do about it.

Ultimately, though, we’re talking about justice. How can we truly increase justice for marginalized people? And since we’re talking education, justice for marginalized students? That’s the way to really and truly fight this issue. And there are a lot of forms of justice, despite the way the word has been narrowly defined as “vengeance,” basically. I’m not ready to answer the question as to the best way to provide justice for those who need it. But I think, no mattter what I do, it will have to speak to how justice can be extended to those from whom it has been denied. And if I can do that, in a concrete, actionable way, it will have some real weight and some real impact.

Stay tuned.

Helping the Wrong Way

What strikes me in my initial forays into researching the altruistic shield (using one’s ostensibly sacrificial profession as a defense against criticism for perpetuating white supremacist systems)  is that, despite the news stories about the openly racist people in classrooms, most of the racism is couched in other issues. What I mean is that most such teachers really DO want to help – I think I have to believe that – but they believe that “help” should be filtered through deficit-based instruction and pedagogy.

This deficit-based pedagogy intersects with the “colorblind” racism particularly prevalent in those who are openly liberal, which means that when people point out that they’re not actually helping their students as much as they could, paroxysms of rage and tears can be the result.

The truth of the matter is, racially marginalized students ARE different from their peers. To acknowledge this flies in the face of “not seeing color,” but that’s some nonsense anyway. We’re different for reasons specific to each person’s life but also for reasons that are more universal to the racially marginalized. To respond to this effectively requires meeting these students where they are and using your actual, valuable training and skills to help them find a successful way forward instead of placing these students where you think they must be because of the assumptions you’ve subconsciously made or, most damagingly, deceiving yourself into believing you are free from all race-based judgment.

I think this is why it’s so hard for many teachers to hear that they might not be perfect supporters of racially marginalized students. Most do enter education or other such fields to help, but the society and systems around them have framed what “help” is in ways that harm the people they seek to serve. It’s not really their fault that they don’t know. It only becomes their fault once they’re told and they refuse to consider the possibility.

Recontextualizing

Having had my eyes pried wide open on how deeply racism impacts all facets of education, I’ve been reflecting of late on my own experience as a black boy (and man, but mostly boy if we’re talking about school) in predominantly white institutions.

I felt as though I was mostly happy, but learning what I have, some of the experiences of my schooling that had initially made me uncomfortable for reasons I couldn’t pin down are aligning with the influence of institutional racism.

I’m not going to tell a list of stories here, for this is not Racial Trauma Story Hour on the Internet. I am only saying that denying its impact doesn’t diminish it, and we can only fight what we can see. Just glad to see it clearly now.

Occam’s Racism

In the United States, if it’s possible for racism to have an impact on something, it most likely does, and rarely in a way that isn’t extremely damaging. But boy is it hard for us to ever admit that unless it’s a glaring issue. We’re still out here analyzing whether or not President 45 is racist because even if you act like that guy, we still can’t bring ourselves say what he’s doing is racist.

Let’s narrow the scope, though. Let’s talk about education.

There is plenty of research on race in education, sure. But even this research rarely focuses on the impact of racism. Generally, we report out the differential outcomes between races and ponder how to solve the so-called “achievement gap,” yet we never sit around and say, “I think we should be less racist,” because it requires us to admit culpability and the possibility that we’re Not Good People.

Unfortunately, we can’t prove the direct impact of institutional racism on, say, test scores, because it’s so powerful and all-encompassing that there isn’t ever really a way to remove it for comparison’s sake. You can’t place several racialized students into an education system without racism to see how they perform since such a system does not exist in this country.

We want to talk about socioeconomic status. We want to talk about class. We want to talk about poverty. We should indeed talk about these things. But we need to talk about racism, too, concretely and explicitly.

I came to this conclusion when pondering several pieces I’ve read on the issue of native-speakerism. It’s certainly true that ELT professionals whose first language isn’t English are not valued as highly as so-called native speakers, but when these discussions arise, we rarely take the necessary trip around the corner and point our finger at the inherent racism lurking beneath this discrimination. We know language and culture cannot be separated, but we need to remember that this is true of language and race as well, and when “native speakers” are prized, there’s a specific image being sought, and it’s not ELT professionals of color.

I commend the ELT field for trying to counteract native-speakerism (though I’m not sure how successful the fight is), but we’re not solving this issue without facing the racism at its core. And until we come to grips with the power racism has over so many of our systems, and especially so within education, it will continue to be the safest and saddest assumption one can make.